Magazine / October 2013

A fierce fight: GDP versus clean air

A heavy cloud of pollution covers Beijing as pedestrians cross a busy street in eastern Beijing.

A heavy cloud of pollution covers Beijing as pedestrians cross a busy street in eastern Beijing.

© Greenpeace / Natalie Behring

Greenpeace East Asia Climate and Energy Campaigner Huang Wei, writes of how it took China more than five years to finally decide to reduce coal in order to solve the country's smog problem. And also looks at how we were there, every historic step of the way.

READ THE ANNOUNCEMENT A historic turnaround for coal

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Huang Wei

As an activist who has been working on the air pollution issue from the Greenpeace Beijing office for over two years, I’ve directly experienced all the crazy headline-grabbing polluted days and watched a fierce fight unfold between policies of prioritizing GPD growth and a public cry for clear air.

There were moments where I lost faith that anything would get better, but when I witnessed citizens join together in order to push for real action regarding air pollution, my hope was rekindled. And now, finally, after five months of negotiation behind closed doors, the central government has released the National Air Pollution Control Action Plan to guide the eastern part of China in their control of coal consumption.

During the time of its release four provinces or municipalities have announced a coal reduction target of 83 million tons by 2017. Together these provinces consume more coal than the EU. Further provincial coal reduction plans are expected to follow shortly. It amazes me that I may very well be witnessing a momentous turning point in the history of China’s coal use and will experience dramatic air quality improvement in the near future.

After 10 years of rapid coal growth this is an unprecedented turnaround in China’s energy policy.

Beijing Olympics

A Chinese security guard keeps watch over the Bird's Nest Stadium in Olympic Green in northern Beijing, which is shrouded in a heavy cloud of pollution. © Greenpeace / Natalie Behring

2008 Beijing Olympics and beyond

The first time I came to Beijing was in 2008, right after Chinese New Year. Standing on the second ring road of the capital, my initial impression of Beijing was that of a city that is cold and grey. I, like many others in Beijing, never paid much attention to air quality back then, even though the sky was a weird grayish hue during the entirety of that stay. Months later, with the Beijing Olympics approaching, the city skies suddenly took on a blue color. People passing by would stop, look up and say to one another: "What a lovely day today." It was a simple joy we could all experience during the Games. Only later we learned the central government had artificially created those blue skies for the purposes of the Olympics.

In 2008, the Greenpeace Beijing office published an assessment of the environmental performance of the Beijing 2008 Olympic Games called China after the Olympics: Lessons from Beijing. The report said: "Short-term solutions such as temporary industry closures, halting construction and vehicle restrictions might help Beijing meet WHO standards during the period of the Games, but they are not long-term solutions. Only through tackling fundamental causes of air pollution by reforming energy structure, improving public transportation and enforcing strict emission standards for industries will Beijing see the benefits of the Games long after."

As predicted the effects manually created by short-term regulations quickly faded. Beijing’s air worsened soon after the Olympics, and yet, something else had changed more permanently. The dramatic difference felt by the people living in Beijing during those magical two weeks left a niggling thought in their minds.